Apr 12 2011 5:38pm

Fantasy Dystopia With a Texan Accent

SeanchanIf it is one thing I have always found odd, it is that societies in fantasies don’t typically get the “dystopian” label, despite how close they may shear to the concept. After all, all medieval-styled societies were more or less dystopian already, right? Oppressed peasants complaining about the violence inherent in the system and all that? But there is an example of a fantasy society in particular that I think exemplifies the dystopia sub-genre while kind of hiding it, and that is the Seanchan Empire from Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.

So, what is it that makes Seanchan dystopian? Well, it’s complex. It is, without a doubt, a horrible society from the first time we are introduced to it as a rampaging, mysterious army that has come out of nowhere, using strange monsters for war, and enslaving any woman who can use the One Power. That they do this in very short order to one of the female leads of the story makes them all the more purely evil, right? Yeah, about that.

Now, I’m sure I’m going to get a fair amount of flak for the following assertion, but...Seanchan isn’t all that bad, in context. Now, Robert Jordan was pretty clear on what he thought about moral relativism, which is to say he despised any concept that could attempt to justify what he viewed as evil. Yet, his writing is fairly fraught with plenty of gray in his world of black and white, and I think a huge part of the Seanchan Empire is to make us realize that, even with a concept of absolute good and evil, it is hard to classify anything of this mortal coil that way.

So, Seanchan isn’t that evil, I say? Yeah. Okay, they have slavery and treat magic users even worse than slaves. Let us look at the contexts for these. First, slavery: well, this is pretty well dark and evil, except that in several instances, we are shown that Seanchan slaves still have social mobility. Not to buy their freedom—although I cannot recall offhand if it is ever mentioned that slaves could become free men in the Seanchan social structure—but there are generals who are slaves that command more respect and bearing than some of the lower nobles. Conversely, it seems like once a person becomes basic da’covale, that is to say, the servants that wear nearly transparent robes, there isn’t necessarily that much of a chance for said mobility.

This kind of leads into the social structure of the Seanchan in general. While no single nation in The Wheel of Time exactly translates to a nation in the real world, there are obviously some strong references to the rigid social structures of feudal Japan and China in our “Empire from beyond the vast western sea.” Lots of bowing, lots of concern over exactly what level of familiarity a person is allowed to use to another, all the way up from the meanest peasant to the Empress herself (may she live forever). The more European and American main characters find the way people must prostrate themselves on the floors before nobility and bow so ridiculously low in general an affront, but we must remember we are always viewing the Seanchan through our characters eyes in these instances.

When we finally get to see through a Seanchan’s eyes, there isn’t some constant sense of dread about wondering if they used the right level of deference to a superior. It is second nature, and does not really inconvenience their daily routines. While the Seanchan are making plenty of slaves of the Westlanders they are conquering, a good part of this seems to come from culture shock and the general pig-headedness of any culture dealing with another. People natively from Seanchan have to majorly break the rules they have had ingrained in them from birth to end up in sheer, white robes.

Then, of course, there is the way they treat the women who channel. Yes, degrading a sentient human to a pack animal that just happens to be able to talk is deplorable, but I think this is honestly a very hard thing to truly analyze from our sofas. After all, we have never in the history of humanity had to deal with a small segment of our population that had god-like power compared to the rest of us. Various mediums have tried in various ways to use superhumans or magic users as metaphors for racism or sexism or the like, but I think Jordan does a wonderful job of showing a working society dealing with the issue.

After all, Seanchan as a nation had been terrorized by the Aes Sedai that had been left over from the apocalyptic breaking of the world, something they were marginally responsible for anyway. From what information we have been given, the Aes Sedai had been waging open warfare on each other in Seanchan for two thousand years until the current ruling faction sailed over a thousand years prior to the story. They then turned on each other, one of them created a means for the Aes Sedai to be controlled, and the conquerors took matters into their own hands. They could not trust the channelers and they had no other means of protecting themselves from the channelers who would otherwise just dominate them with their natural-born ability. No, I’m not saying that chattel-slavery is the way to deal with it ideally, but they made the best of a bad situation.

So, all this comes down to why I think Seanchan really deserves to be examined as a dystopia in general. I once heard a “working definition” of a dystopia at a convention that I really liked. It went something along the lines of “A utopia is where everyone is happy. A dystopia is a utopia where someone is miserable.” See, it has been observed many times in the series that the common people don’t mind Seanchan rule. In fact, they kind of like it. The Seanchan offer them better laws and enforcement of said laws, even if it is by certain draconian measures. The Seanchan for the most part don’t demand much change of their subjects except for the adherence to egalitarian laws, and that anyone who can use the One Power be handed over so they do not become a threat. Even becoming a regular slave doesn’t doom you to a horrible life, per se, as if you manage to prove yourself to still be worth something, you could become a respected member of the military or a high ranking servant to the nobility. But, honestly, for the Average Joe, it is best just to tug the forelock like they always have and enjoy the better rule of law. So, 96% of the population lives in remarkable well ordered peace and is free to pursue the lives they want, 1% deals with the politicking, which is vicious and cut-throat no matter what country you are in, and 3% is either instantly put to death (the male channelers, which is what happens in all societies), or enslaved in a horrible way.

Yeah, sounds pretty dystopian to me, and a good one at that. See, the best dystopia, in my opinion, is one that, if you are an average person on the inside, you might actually think you are in a near utopia instead. So, as much as I feel kind of dirty saying, but if I was to be a random person in any particular nation, I think Seanchan might actually be my number one pick. Scary, isn’t it?

Richard Fife is a writer, blogger, and thinks the only downside to being an average Seanchan citizen would be the Texan accent. He is currently writing a free-to-read, illustrated steampunk web serial called The Tijervyn Chronicles. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is part of Dystopia Week: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Nevin Steindam
1. TheNevin
That makes sense, but I think something is missing from that definition of dystopia. I don't consider a story dystopian unless it's exploring the people who live under that system. The Seanchan are mainly portrayed as external invaders in WoT. I think a really good dystopian book could be written about them, but that hasn't been done yet.
Richard Fife
2. R.Fife
@TheNevin Oh, totally. I was just more exploring the idea that they are a dystopian society, not attempted to claim the Wheel of Time was a dystopian work (although a braver soul than me might try). And, as it happens, Robert Jordan did intend to write three "outrigger" novels that took place in Seanchan ten years in story after the main sequence would end. If we will ever get to see these, though, is a matter of vast speculation and past responses from Brandon Sanderson and Team Jordan has been along the lines of "we'll see" and "probably not". I has a sad for that.
DA Ford
3. Ford75
About slaves becoming free in Seanchan society - Egeanin wouldn't release Domon from being her property because she had to ensure that he was provided for first. So there is a procedure for property to become free.
4. johnsr83
I agree that if I was going to live in a dystopian society I would live in the Seanchan there name is even pronounced like my firsts name. Also their slaves certainly have a better life in general than the slaves in the real world, in history or today.
5. Foxessa
I'm not sure whether this will fit into the subject of the entry, but yesterday I was picking up an inter-library loan, a book of history on Paul Revere I'd been wanting very much. Ahead of me was a man around 50 picking up his inter-library loans -- 3 Robert Jordan Wheel of Time volumes.

I know how I feel when an inter-library loan arrives that I've waited a long time for -- it's like -- PRESENTS! CHRISTMAS! BIRTHDAY! YAY!

So I could empathize with how he felt.

Love, C.
William Fettes
6. Wolfmage
I’m pretty torn on this post. On one level, I agree that there are genuine questions of public safety that arise when you have people with god-like powers walking around. However, I’m also genuinely outraged by the blithe assertion that they ‘made the best of a bad situation’. I just don’t accept that the institution of damane slavery can ever be classified as making the best of anything. And with scant verifiable details about the pre-Consolidation era, I just don't think we can uncritically accept any Seanchan account of the darkness of that time, and therefore, the military necessity to act. It is possible channellers were running amok and enslaving people, but it’s equally likely that’s been given a highly propagandistic gloss by the Seanchan Empire, if it wasn't made up out of whole cloth, and whichever is the case, it most likely ties back to Ishamael's nefarious influence.

As for the dystopia label, I find it a little discordant to apply to fantasy. But it's hard to put my finger on exactly why. I think it's because, rightly or wrongly, I associate it with a future gone wrong in some way because of the inertia of unchecked ideas or forces. I said future, but it’s really about envisioning change over time where the destination is gritty and non-utopian in significant ways. So it can apply to counter-factual scenario.

The videogame Bioshock, for example, is clearly dystopian despite being set in the past because it shows what happens when runaway Randian capitalists reject all the restraints and moral conventions of society to create an anything-goes libertarian city underwater.

You might be able to convince me that Steam Punk could cover the same territory, but I believe most fantasy is too static and too pre-modern to deal with the same basic framework of future destination. It’s probably possible, but it sits in tension with the common tendency of the genre.

In regard to the plight of commoners under the Seanchan system, I agree we can't discount this sentiment entirely. It's to the credit of the Seanchan that once they subjugate you, they do afford you a pretty good degree of safety and autonomy. That does count for something.

But I also can't help but feel that RJ was probably making an allusion to the claim you sometimes hear about Mussolini or other dictators that they made the trains run on time. Notwithstanding the fact that empirically these claims are often false, because highly centralised governments like fascist corporatist systems and communist command and control are both inherently inefficient, I think we can agree these claims are morally misleading no matter how genuinely they’re held. The fact that some old Eastern European grandmothers have fond memories of the Soviet Empire is not exactly counting much against the objective evils committed by the USSR. The Maslowian theory about human psychology is also relevant here. It suggests that as our most crucial needs are satisfied, we develop higher-level desires which can become much more abstract. Often this concept is used to mock the allegedly backward values of elites, but I actually think it works the other way: often the most poor are too easily satisfied with injustice precisely because their immediate needs preclude deep consideration of higher level demands of justice. For example, it's hard to really care about equality in superannuation entitlements for same-sex couples when you're dirt poor and living hand-to-mouth. Equally, the plight of the minority damane and da'covale are not on the radar of your average Randlander who just wants security. Indeed, the average Randlander is reasonably likely to be pretty ignorant and suspicious of the power anyway.
Claire de Trafford
7. Booksnhorses
Some interesting points raised here. As you say, we tend to see the Seanchan through our chanelling protagonists eyes. Their approach to the AS reminds me of the XMen and Genosha storyline. I'm pretty sure that we as a society would take a similar approach to such powerful humans as long as they were very much in the minority; I certainly wouldn't want to be left at the mercy of these people despite how cool and fun it is to read about them. Having treated them like that it is a very short step to justifying the behaviour by treating them as less than human (cf slavery in the USA), and making them distinctive as such. I also agree that for many people, who may well be free only in the technical sense, with no money or education to make free decisions and life choices, the Seanchan way of life, with its security and peace, is very appealing.
8. wkwillis
It's not that the grandmothers in Eastern Europe loved the Communist functionaries, it's that they were such an improvement on the functionaries that preceded them....like the ones that put great grandpa in jail when my teenage grandpa escaped over the border and made it to America back in 1905 or thereabouts. AustriaHungary had definite opinions on discouraging immigration till they had got some value out of you like doing your (unpaid) military service.
Then there were the corrupt thugs of the interwar years...ollowed by the Nazis and collaborationists during the war...
Chin Bawambi
9. bawambi
After all, we have never in the history of humanity had to deal with a small segment of our population that had god-like power compared to the rest of us.

I've got a big problem with this statement although I like the premise of the argument. Its called feudalism/serfdom in our history. A Lord back in the day had god-like powers compared to the populace. I would premise that Tear pre-Rand is nearly the same as Seanchan. If anywhere in Randland I would rather live in the Caralain Plains then either of these dystopian lands.

Bawambi of the livefreeordie Aiel
Richard Fife
10. R.Fife
@bawambi To defend my point, the lords were not genetically different. They could not honestly, just because of their blood, subjectate people. It had to do with who their parents were and what institutions of government were in place. I can see the analogy you are making, but the big difference is that nobility and commoners was a precieved biological difference, not a real one. Nobles, for example, were not randomly born to commoners and became noble whether they wanted to or not.

Your torn-ness means I have done my job. I made you think ;) As to my "blithe" comment, yes, I am basing it on the percieved histories, but in the end, it is all fiction, so it can still be something for us to think about: how do you handle a rampaging minority population that can blow buildings up with their minds?
James Whitehead
11. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
I do agree that the history of Seanchan is suspect without corroboration from other sources. Don't forget that Hawkwing's army went over the sea and the leaders at least had the same bias against the Aes Sedai as Hawkwing did. They weren't going to see these channelers in a good light no matter what.

I think Jordan drew on the example of the Persian Empire when creating the Seanchan, as well as Japan & China. The Persians were very tolerant conquerors who pretty much left the locals with their own traditions in tact. They just had to pay tribute & obey the Persian rule. Not bad for some farmer really. Or at least, as Thom would say, no different than what he/she knew before.

I think that the Seanchan Empire was another creation of Jordan's to make the reader think. The Seanchan are a successful people, prosperous, and live in relative peace. On the surface everything looks good. But you scratch that surface you see the treatment to the channelers and the fact the Empire needs people like the Seekers to maintain their rule. Definitely gives you a "Yeah, but..." feeling when you realize things aren't black and white.


PS - Also, it is rather a bit of grim irony that the "Servants to All" are, in the Seanchan Empire, truly that.
John Massey
12. subwoofer
This is Sparta!!!

Yeah, i dunno if I am feeling all that great about the highs and lows of the Seanchan empire or the parallels in our world. Like most things in life tho' folks can be content with stuff until they know about the green grass on the other side of the fence. This is not to say that their lot in life is good or bad but it is suprising how accustomed one can be to living in harsh conditions. A body can get used to anything. Even being leashed.

13. Edward McCain
Today I Learned that Richard Fife is Lawful Neutral.

14. Cunegonde
If Greek and Roman slaves were anything like the way they are painted in the Menaechmi, and other such comedies, it's a surprise that anything got done.

On the other hand, you have the way Cato recommends treating slaves as human machinery - discard when you can no longer get a return; and the way the slaves in the military machine and the mining industry had not very long life expectancies ...

Dystopia lurks behind every society's bright and shiny face - someone somewhere's always getting the worst of the deal, the thin end of the stick, and it's hard to know what one can do about it.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
15. tnh
I'm not sure dystopias are inevitable; just that the process of becoming civilized moves incredibly slowly. Change takes forever -- and then a couple of decades later, kids can't believe things haven't always been that way.

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